“Kill and scalp all, little and big…nits make lice.”—Colonel John M. Chivington
Before the Battle of Fort Washita came the Battle of Sand Creek—also known as The Sand Springs Massacre. (Colorado)
Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp, and that of another Cheyenne chief, White Antelope, were attacked and destroyed on a cold November dawn, 1864. Although the camps flew an American flag alongside a white flag of truce, Colonel John Chivington, determined to further himself in the political arena of the day, ordered the Cheyennes annihilated. “Take no prisoners,” he ordered, adding his own personal slogan, “…nits make lice.”
The encampment at Sand Creek consisted of about six hundred Indians—most of them, women and children. As the first shots were fired by Chivington’s men, only about one hundred Cheyenne warriors ran out, up the creek bed from the ravine where they were camped, to defend the women and children.
Still, these warriors were able to hold Chivington’s troops at bay for over eight hours, allowing nearly five hundred Indians to escape—including Black Kettle.
Chivington boasted of killing six hundred; eye-witness testimony estimated the umber at less than two hundred. Two-thirds of the dead were women and children. White Antelope was one of the first killed, as he left his lodge, arms extended to show peace.
Black Kettle’s wife was shot. As troopers neared, they shot her eight more times. Black Kettle threw her over his shoulder and ran. He later removed all nine bullets, and his wife lived.
A three-year-old toddler was not so lucky. As he walked out to the dry creek bed, three troopers some seventy yards away took turns shooting at him. The third one finally hit him, dropping the child where he stood.
Chivington received a hero’s welcome in Denver. He and his men exhibited the corpses of the dead Cheyennes they had sexually mutilated and scalped to the cheering citizens of Denver. It is believed that there has never been another battle in North America where more Indians have been slain.
Three years later, a Congressional inquest labeled Chivington’s “battle” a massacre.
In 1867, Black Kettle was one of the signers of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (Kansas) in which the Cheyenne gave up their holdings along the Arkansas River for land on a reservation in what is now Oklahoma.
By the fall of 1868, Black Kettle and two thousand warriors settled near the Washita River in the southeastern part of Indian Territory. Though the Treaty of Medicine Lodge promised specific supplies, the provisions never came. Many of the Cheyenne joined a young warrior, Roman Nose, who had been leading a series of raids on farms and homesteads of white settlers.
Under General Philip Sheridan, three columns of troops launched a winter campaign against Cheyenne encampments. The Seventh Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer, was selected to take the lead.
For four days, in a foot of fresh snowfall, Custer and his 800 men followed the tracks of a small raiding party through the continuing snowstorm. The tracks led to the encampment on the Washita River. Custer ordered the attack at dawn.
On November 27, 1868, nearly four years to the day after the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer’s troops charged. Chief Black Kettle and his wife, Maiyuna, were shot dead on the banks of the Washita River, (Indian Territory), their bodies riddled with bullets.
“Both the chief and his wife fell at the riverbank, riddled with bullets,” one witness reported. “The soldiers rode right over Black Kettle and his wife and their horse as they lay dead on the ground, and their bodies were all splashed with mud by the charging soldiers.”
Custer ordered the slaughter of the Indian pony and mule herd—over 800 animals. The lodges of the encampment were burned along with the winter food supply. At the threat of reinforcements from other Indian camps only a few miles away, Custer quickly retreated to Camp Supply with his hostages.
In the Battle of the Washita, though Custer claimed 100 Cheyenne fatalities, Indian accounts claim 11 warriors, and 19 women and children were killed. More than 50 Cheyennes were captured—mainly women and children.
After this battle, most of the Cheyenne were convinced to accept reservation life. On the Washita River, Chief Black Kettle’s vision of peace was crushed, along with the Cheyenne way of life.